Monday, 9 February 2015

Which Way the Road to Damascus?

An article which appears in the most recent edition of CAMRA’s “What’s Brewing” newspaper raises concerns about the growing gulf between an increasingly aged, active membership and the new, young, “hipsters” of the craft beer movement.

Written by a long-standing CAMRA activist, the author uses examples from his own branch to illustrate the problem. It appears that despite membership numbers being at a record level, the number of active members within the branch is declining year on year, making it increasingly difficult to fill committee posts and leading to problems with the day to day functioning of the branch.

West Kent CAMRA members 30 years ago
This situation is reflected in my own, West Kent branch, where none of the principle officers are younger than their mid 50’s. The same applies to the handful of active members we now see. Committee posts are increasingly hard to fill; so much so that one poor chap is covering the positions of both Membership and Social Secretary.

These sorts of situations are untenable; not only in the medium term, but increasingly in the short term as well, but no-one seems to have an answer. The correspondent in “What’s Brewing” makes the point that CAMRA is in danger of becoming a two-tier organisation; one which has sway with government, and able to influence policy on beer and pubs, but at the same time is far less capable of making an impact locally.

I’m sure there are branches which can demonstrate this is not the case, but for branches like mine, what is the way forward? When I first joined the Campaign for Real Ale, as a young student, over 40 years ago, it was by and large a young person’s organisation. This may not have been apparent at the time, but looking back at photos of those early days, in particular those of marches held to protest against various brewery closures, shows this to be the case.

West Kent CAMRA members 3 years ago
Today, CAMRA’s membership is predominantly, but not exclusively, late middle-aged and male, and the fact that the old guard, including myself, is not getting any younger is proved by the obituaries which appear on a regular basis in the pages of  “What’s Brewing”.

The article in “What’s Brewing” makes a plea for the campaign to engage far more with the predominantly young people involved in the flourishing craft beer scene. This is a sentiment I wholly agree with, and I know many of my West Kent colleagues feel the same. However, there are also many within CAMRA for whom craft beer, and especially “Craft Keg” is a total anathema. This is a view shared by those in charge of the organisation; at least publicly. Privately they might well admit there are hundreds, if not thousands of excellent “non-real” beers produced both at home and abroad, but because CAMRA has boxed itself into a corner by its narrow definition of “Real Ale”, they are unable to come out in support of these beers.

The new generation of young beer enthusiasts have no such restrictions, and base their judgement of a beer on what it tastes like in the glass, rather than on an out-dated and increasingly irrelevant definition based on post-brewing processing and dispense. This unfortunately means CAMRA will be seen as increasingly irrelevant by younger drinkers, to whom no such constraints apply.
So will it be a case of never the twain shall meet? I sincerely hope not, but unless CAMRA is prepared to undergo a seismic shift in policy; a “Road to Damascus” experience, then I’m afraid that as the old guard depart their watch, and with no new blood coming along to replace them, the campaign will literally whither on the vine; or should that be hop-bine?


DaveS said...

What really does my head in about this is that it'd really be quite easy for CAMRA to open its arms to the craft beer scene without having to embrace keg - there's loads of hipster-friendly new-wave craft stuff cask (and almost all the bottled stuff is bottle conditioned) and it'd be really really easy for them to trumpet it as evidence of how great and diverse real ale can be.

I can sort of handle the fact that they're irrationally hung up on "extraneous CO2", and I actually agree that promoting cask ale has a lot of value beyond just promoting "good beer", but the fact that they're worrying about how to interest young people in cask ale while completely ignoring a lot of people who are doing exactly that really makes me despair.

Curmudgeon said...

AFAIK you're not on Twitter, Paul, but this has received several favourable mentions, such as this one.

John Clarke said...

Favourable mentions or not there's stuff to take issue with here. In Greater Manchester most of the branches are doing well with healthy branch meeting attendance and no shortage of volunteers. So - what is West Kent doing wrong? How much effort does it make to attract new people? What use does it make of social media? The fact that the author of this blog isn't on Twitter may be indicative of the problem.

Let's also not forget that to survive locally CAMRA just needs to attract volunteers per se and not just the young. As Mudgie has commented in the past, the "active retired" are more likely to be able to devote time and effort to running things than are the younger members who have things like careers to look after.

As for craft - I agree there are too many in CAMRA who equate that with keg (and let's not forget that many of the new keg beers aren't in fact keg at all) but again perhaps they could follow the example of the Greater Manchester branches who included this in the publicity for the recent Manchester Beer & Cider Festival:

"Once again we’ll be featuring some of the very best cask conditioned craft beers..."

None of these are terminal problems - it just takes both a little effort and a little imagination to address them.

Simon said...

Yes. Firstly the archaic, weaselly little term "Real Ale" needs to be put to sleep. Really, CAMRA, if you mean "cask ale" then be honest and say "cask ale", and quit the smirky, self-conscious implications that anything from a keg is somehow fake rubbish.

There's demonstrably enough brilliant beer being served from kegs right now that you look at best obsolete, and at worst, entirely ridiculous.

It may also hope to stop labelling anyone who enjoys a decent beer from a relatively new brewery a "hipster". Again, it just makes you look stupid.

Sat In A Pub said...

As usual JC makes some salient points. There's no arguing that CAMRA, along with many volunteer led organisations, is low in younger member demographics. However, for the reasons John states, this is not in itself an immediate impediment to CAMRA's progress overall but more of a local issue. Also the electronic age we now live in and the access to information that everyone now has makes many aspects of running a branch easier than ever.

Paul Bailey said...

Thank-you to everyone who has commented on this post so far.

Before addressing some of the wider issues raised, a word or two about West Kent CAMRA and what the branch has been doing, and continues to do, in order to attract new faces.

John, in reply to some of the points both you and Tyson raise, about Social Media; the branch has its own Facebook page, along with a Twitter account. This is in addition to the branch website. Our Publicity Officer also produces a Newsletter which is emailed out twice a month, to all members who have opted in to receive it. The Newsletter gives details of forthcoming socials and other events, such as CAMRA or pub beer festivals, along with pertinent information about current campaigns. Details of public transport arrangements are posted, where appropriate, so as to make attendance at socials and other events as hassle-free as possible.

Our current membership stands at 581; we don’t even see 10% of these people. Although no longer on the committee, I have played an active role in the branch for the past 30 years. Unfortunately the problem of poor attendance at socials, and the lack of active members, has dogged the branch since its inception. I think the old adage about leading a horse to water certainly applies in our case!

You are correct Mudge, in that I don’t have a Twitter account. Life’s too short I’m afraid to be bothering about the mundane doings of other people! I really don’t have time to be “Twatting”, and have no intention of doing so in the future. As I pointed about above though, the branch does have an account, and I am told we have a large number of followers.

DaveS and Simon, you both make similar points about the foolishness of CAMRA in not forging closer links with the craft beer movement. It’s almost as though the campaign believes that if it keeps its head stuck in the sand, the whole thing will go away.

I also fervently dislike the term “Real Ale”, and in my own writings always refer to the stuff by its correct technical name of “cask-conditioned ale”. The trouble is “real ale” forms part of CAMRA’s acronym, so the campaign would need to re-name itself, (probably not a bad thing), if it were to drop the term.

Cooking Lager said...

Why be more concerned with the continuation of an organization than the purpose of an organization?

Everything CAMRA wanted when it began has been achieved. There is little point in most of what it does now. Beer guides and festivals are no longer needed. You keep them going because they make money and forget why you started them up.

There will be a requirement for a middle aged beer drinkers club. People make friends at school and university but rarely in middle age, so social clubs of the likeminded will always serve a function. Masonry for scruffy sandal wearing beardies that don’t own a suit.

If you are leaving university today, and of the same age as CAMRAs founders when they started, why bother worrying about what beer is in pubs? There’s lots of choice these days. The choice to enjoy what you like rather than drink to some old codgers’ weird definition of what is acceptable. Why worry about some pubs shutting? Decent boozers remain. It is also to your benefit if crappy pubs get knocked down and flats built. Most towns and cities need an increase in housing supply. It’s all well and good wanting to preserve crappy old boozers when you bought a house donkeys years ago when they were affordable.

CAMRA is a great retail offer. It has some fun social activities. Enjoy it for what it is and take a tip from me. Check out many of the brewery tours they do. Plenty of times I’ve got kaylied for nowt at a free bar, courtesy of the beard club. It’s bob on. You can’t order lager, mind, but even pongy crap is drinkable when it’s free.

Why exactly do you want youngsters? Do you want to hear what they want to campaign for? Are you prepared for the fact that it might not be what you want? Craft beer might not be the worst idea they have. They might want to scrap half of what you do to make space for what they think needs doing. It is their time you are asking for.

Or do you just want them to keep on doing what you lot have decided on and done for 40 years and monetize them for free graft on an endless cycle of sending cheques to St Albans?

Tand had the right idea with a fit for purpose review, how’s that going?

Curmudgeon said...

I'd like to see some research on the subject, but I'm not entirely convinced that a perceived antipathy to keg beer is really a major factor deterring younger people from joining CAMRA - it's just something that a few people with an axe to grind harp on about. As John Clarke can confirm, it's entirely possible to run a CAMRA branch that steers clear of anti-keg rhetoric and fully engages with even the most hipsterish of local craft brewers.

It's more a case, as Tyson says, that CAMRA shares with most other similar membership organisations a difficulty in activating younger people. A lot of that is a generational shift. Much of how CAMRA operates derives from the student/protest politics of the 60s and 70s and can come across as old hat to twentysomethings. While it may not be a big problem today, I can see it becoming an issue in ten or fifteen years' time when the current generation of activists start dropping out due to age and infirmity. That may lead to CAMRA becoming even more of a nationally-focused organisation with much less on-the-ground local activity.

There's also the question of what it is that CAMRA is actually campaigning for. It has to a large extent turned into a beer appreciation club for middle-aged, middle-class drinkers. That's not necessarily a problem, but there definitely is an absence of a clear target. And I don't see that the recent campaigning about pubco and planning reform enthuses the average member at all.

Paul Bailey said...

You are both correct Cookie and Mudge, and in many respects what CAMRA set out to do has been achieved. I actually think it has achieved far more in its 40+ years of campaigning than its early members could ever have dreamt of; and by this I mean the explosion of new breweries and the massive upsurge of interest in beer which has spread around the world.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that drinkers in countries such as the United States and Australia, as well as many other parts of the world, owe CAMRA a huge debt of gratitude for showing them the way forward, and inspiring them to re-create long-lost beer styles and start up new breweries. And of course closer to home, the beer scene in these islands would be far poorer if CAMRA hadn’t have come along.

For my part, I shan’t mind too much if CAMRA continues to morph into a middle-aged drinking club. This may not be what the National Executive and Head Office have in mind, but apart from the odd brewery tour, or occasional beer festival, that’s what I mainly go along for these days.

John Clarke said...

"As John Clarke can confirm, it's entirely possible to run a CAMRA branch that steers clear of anti-keg rhetoric and fully engages with even the most hipsterish of local craft brewers."

Yes indeed - it's not rocket science. Still a little bemused by the original blog post here. It seemed to start off as one of theses "CAMRA needs to change to survive" pieces and when this is to some extent shot down the author reveals that he's really only along for the beer these days anyway. All a bit baffling to me. Perhaps I'm easily baffled.

Given that West Kent does everything that Paul says I do wonder why they are struggling to get members. It does seem to be a rural-ish branch and I assume public transport is poor so that may be an issue. But there are significant towns in there too. However I wonder how welcoming they are to new faces - it is a group of old friends who have been running things for years and resent intrusion or new ideas?

Anyway - someone else's problem really (and from what I infer not even Paul's any more as he's just along for the beer now).

Cooking Lager said...

Eye, Clarkey. But if you go back to the original aims of the founders, which was better beer rather than a narrow definition of a particular type of good beer, what is the beer that most needs improving?

I'd say many pubs need better cask beer. So cask quality is important.

I can joke about the joy of cheap lager, but cooking lager is worth what I pay for it in Tesco. Carling is great value at 50p a can, not so at 4 quid a pint.

If I pay pub prices then I want a pint of Budvar not Fosters. So better lager in pubs would be an aim. Better cold fizzy keg lager, not naff cask lager that tastes of armpit sweat.

It's all well and good to think a branch is enlightened because it's not nasty about craft beer, like some other branches, but beer in pubs would be improved by positively advocating craft products. I'm not having a pop at you, but your approach is effectively a bridging compromise that doesn't really make either traditionalists or craft advocates happy. It manages to piss neither off.

CAMRA itself said that those wishing to advocate craft should go start their own campaign 'cos CAMRA don't do keg.

So you can understand many younger people thinking that achieving what they want might be done more effectively outside CAMRA that within it. That maybe they should spend their time on what is important to them than doing what is important to an older generation.

That's not to say it's not worth joining CAMRA. It's worth the money, the piss ups are good and many of the folk are quite nice to share a pint with.

But if an when an older generation step down you would have to expect that if a younger generation stepped up to the plate they would only do so on their own terms, and those terms might upset the oldies.

Much of this you are getting now. a younger generation are creating their own commercial craft beer festivals that have nothing to do with CAMRA and are run on their own terms. These maybe a bit middle class, poncy and over priced but CAMRA has missed that boat.

Paul Bailey said...

There’s nothing confusing about my position, John. Although I would like to see CAMRA continue, and indeed thrive, I do think that at some stage it will need to re-invent itself. As for my only being there for the beer these days, what’s wrong with that? I am showing my support by showing up, which is far more than most of our 580 odd members do. Also, after 30 years more or less continuous service in various positions on the committee, I consider I am entitled to take things easy.

To answer your questions about West Kent CAMRA; yes the branch does cover a fairly large rural area, and yes in the outlying villages public transport is virtually non-existent after dark. However, West Kent also incorporates three large towns; namely Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells and there are good rail services between all three until around 11.30 at night. Public transport, in urban areas, is therefore not an issue.

I have thought long and hard over the years about our low attendance figures, and can only conclude that a substantial proportion of our members work up in London, and therefore either get home too late to go back out again in the evenings, or else they do their drinking and socialising whilst still in town, with work colleagues or other associates. The excellent rail links I mentioned above mean all three towns are popular places for commuters to live.

Cookie, your analysis of the situation CAMRA finds itself in, and the challenges it faces, is basically correct. Again I’m not sure what the answer is, and I doubt if CAMRA itself knows either. I wonder if the record high membership figures are distorted and buoyed up by the JDW vouchers, and whether most members are just “arm-chair” supporters, content to stay at home reading their “What’s Brewing” each month, and shelling out for the latest Good Beer Guide each Christmas.

You mentioned Tandleman’s “fit for purpose review”, in an earlier comment. I also wonder how that is going.

Birkonian said...

Wirral Branch suffers from the same lack of interest as West Kent.

Also, lets face it. Many middle aged "CAMRA types" are a bit weird in a train spotting sort of way complete with long, baldy hair and vintage rock tee-shirts. No wonder the younger generation keep their distance.

Paul Bailey said...

Damn, I need to change that T-shirt, but I’ve still got a full head of hair!

Regrettably, Birkonian, much of what you say is the truth; but I think an organisation like CAMRA which, despite its many attempts to try and change, appeals largely to the male of the species, is fated to attract people who collect things. Be they “tickers”, “train spotters”, “stamp collectors” or just plain “anoraks”, most branches have a sprinkling of such types.

Nothing wrong with any of this, but as you say, not conducive to attracting younger, or female members.

Lizard Seer said...

My local branch of CAMRA are pretty much actively unwelcoming, not that you'd guess it from the website ("we'd love to see more of you at branch meetings" etc.). Are they insular because people don't turn up to events, or vice versa? Who knows, but the same 6 people seem to have been running things at the branch since the 1970s.

I'm probably one of the more active beer types in the area, but I've never been contacted once or had an email replied to. And I'm actually a CAMRA member myself! I can only assume all the rude things I've said about them have made me persona non grata.

I've written my own post about this stuff, which will probably have CAMRA Central Lancs petitioning St. Albans for my expulsion.

Curmudgeon said...

Matthew, as Cookie says on your blog, "Why not pop over for one of Clarkey's beard club jaunts and see the pinnacle of beard club?" What time's the last train back from Stockport to Preston?

Lizard Seer said...

Shockingly, Mudgie, 2351

Train times from Preston to Stockport return

Though it is only about 10 minutes quicker to get to Birmingham, even on the direct service.

Curmudgeon said...

Any organisation that involves an intense interest in a particular subject is almost inevitably going to be predominantly male, and will attract geeky individuals with limited social skills. It's just a fact of life. Trainspotting is the classic example, but some have even more obscure interests.

John Clarke said...

Or even:

Further comment is perhaps superfluous.

Lizard Seer said...

I'm sure one of my ex's friends was involved in the Pylon Appreciation Society.

And yes, we all had Asperger's.

Curmudgeon said...

I deliberately didn't mention that, Matthew, but I'd say many keen CAMRA types have Asperger's to some extent. I probably do a bit.

I think many of the complaints about CAMRA being "female-unfriendly" derive from it being an organisation containing plenty of male Aspies.

They're not blatantly, rip-roaringly sexist, they just don't want to engage beyond talking about ABVs and hop varieties.

Lizard Seer said...

I have an official diagnosis of AS from a real psychiatrist and everything, but I don't have the "intense focus on a narrow subject" thing. I have plenty of other interests, and would get bored if I just did "beer" for weeks or months on end. This is probably one of the things that keeps me away from the "Serious Business" end of CAMRA. That and the whole social department of CAMRA would do my head in.

Paul Bailey said...

Final point on the “train-spotting” theme. My wife is firmly of the opinion that all men have Asperger’s; now there’s being judgmental!

ps. About time the English Street Lights Online website was updated. The council have just installed some shiny new ones down our way!

Paul Bailey said...

Matthew, I’ve added your Seeing the Lizards site to my blog list, as I like your slightly irreverent, off-beat style, if that doesn’t sound too patronising?

To be fair to my local branch, all meetings are open ones, and none are held behind closed doors. We do go out of our way to welcome new faces; although from some of the comments I’ve heard from people who joined a decade or so ago, this was not always the case.

ps. Your point about turning up with a pint of cold, fizzy keg does have a familiar ring. A former branch chairman has been spotted, on several occasions, nursing a pint of keg Strongbow in his local Wetherespoons. He claims it’s a protest against the beer quality!

Unknown said...

As I am the youngest member of WK CAMRA committee, having not quiet hit 40 yet, I thought I would comment. I vaguely remember talking to somebody on the Larkins trip, think it might have been Paul, then again again I was getting comfortably hazy by the 2nd pub.

Locally there are less pubs, but the range in those pubs is greater than its ever been. A 15 minute walk in Tunbridge Wells and can find 30 cask + 30 keg, and probably a hundred + bottled beers. Membership seems to be about people that like beer, rather than those that want to change anything. Maybe that's because the local scene is pretty good. Maybe the war has largely been won.

The cask / craft thing to be honest most people really dont care, but I equally doubt that embracing craft would make any difference to the number of active or overall membership. The only issue I have encountered for or against craft has been by people involved in the craft side of things making assumptions about CAMRA members. I really like strong stouts, but also like session bitter, but find really hoppy pale beers to be rather boring.

Tony M. said...

Good post.